In 1928, American travel writer and adventurer Richard Halliburton swam the 50-mile length of the Panama Canal over 10 days accompanied by a rowboat, a reporter and a marksman with a rifle to pick off any crocodiles looking for a free lunch.
Halliburton wasn’t the first to swim the canal, but he was the first to transit through all three sets of locks. The toll for his passage, which was based on tonnage — he weighed 150 pounds — is still the lowest ever paid for a canal transit: 36 cents.
When the APL Egypt, a Panamax-size container ship of 66,992 deadweight tons capable of hauling nearly 5,000 20-foot equivalent container units, passed through the canal on a February day 83 years later, the cost was a bit more — $440,612 — and the operator had to pay by wire transfer before the ship could get a pilot and enter the locks.
In passing from the Pacific to the Atlantic oceans, the APL Egypt was taking advantage of one of the great marvels of human history, a remarkable engineering and technological accomplishment that defies the landscape and seems still more remarkable because the trip is so commonplace today. In fact, the APL vessel was just one of some 3,000 container ships each year that take the canal shortcut from one ocean to another.
There was a slight difference in this voyage, however, with the addition of human cargo — a reporter who had dreamed of transiting the canal since reading “Richard Halliburton’s Book of Marvels” as a boy.
One would think that with some 14,000 ship transits a year, each trip would amount to a routine shuttle through the canal, smooth as silk. But for all the routine, those who work at the canal say, each transit is a unique experience depending on the size of the ship, its load, weather conditions and traffic.
For those who report on the sea but seldom experience the sea, the trip is anything but routine. It is a trip filled with firsthand lessons, where the airy talk about distant supply chains, global trade and the big ideas about a broad shipping industry give way to the visceral experience of being inside a vast, living machine made up of the rumbling parts of moving locks and encased in the heavy, sticky air of a tropical rainforest.
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Lesson No. 1: A ship’s captain must have extraordinary patience to make this transit, even with an experienced pilot aboard, because navigating the locks is tricky at best and there is danger with every slow move.
And any number of things beyond the captain’s control can disrupt a ship’s schedule.
Upon boarding before dawn at Balboa’s Panama Ports terminal, my wife, Lee, and I were taken to the bridge, 54 feet above waterline, where we met Carlos Velez, vice president of APL and managing director for the Latin American region, who had flown in from Miami to accompany us through the canal.
Lesson No. 2: This lesson came at the bridge. The ship and its crew are a living testament to the global nature of container shipping. The Liberian-flag APL Egypt is chartered from German shipowner Norddeutsche Reederei. The Lithuanian skipper, Capt. Zalys Kestutis — who was gracious enough to lend us his cabin for the 10-hour trip — leads a multinational roster of officers and crew: a Russian chief officer, a Polish second officer, a third officer from Myanmar, and a crew of Ukrainians, Romanians and Myanmarese. In the polyglot stew, the means of communications was English.
And, of course, we were joined by a Panamanian pilot, who boarded the vessel soon after we left berth, climbing the five-levels to the bridge after debarking from a small pilot boat. It was a familiar climb and a reunion of sorts for Kestutis, who has worked with the pilot off and on since the captain’s first canal transit in 1983.
Once in position, a 10-hour dialogue commenced. “Hard a starboard!” the pilot would direct, followed by a repeat order from the captain, his word being the word for his crew to react, and echoed by the first mate or helmsman. “Midships!”
The ship, one of 13 deployed on APL’s APX service, had called at the Balboa terminal the previous evening to offload containers for transshipment onto other vessels for delivery to ports on the west coast of South America.
Lesson No. 3: Some of that unloading, Velez explained, also was necessary for the ship to lighten its load enough to navigate the 39-foot draft of the locks. This is the physical reality of the canal’s limits, the limits that reverberate across supply chains from Asia to North America and South America.
When the ambitious expansion of the canal is completed in three years or so, the Panama Canal Authority hopes to turn the experience of loading and unloading containers into a more meaningful transshipment and logistics operation, helping transform the area into a supply chain hub.
For now, however, it’s meant mostly to keep the ship from scraping bottom.
The ship’s 38.5-foot draft in seawater deepens to 39 feet in the canal’s less-buoyant freshwater. For its canal transit, the ship was carrying 1,925 containers, the equivalent of 3,750 TEUs. Container ships can carry a maximum 3,800 loaded TEUs when passing through the canal in order to meet the draft restrictions.
The vessel was halfway through its rotation, one that began in Chiwan, China, and called at Hong Kong, Kaohsiung, Busan, Kobe and Tokyo before crossing the Pacific to Balboa. Following our debarking at the Manzanillo International Terminal in Colon that night, the ship would head for Miami; Jacksonville, Fla.; Savannah, Ga.; Charleston, S.C.; and New York-New Jersey before crossing the Atlantic to Antwerp, Felixstowe, Bremerhaven, Rotterdam and Le Havre.
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Its weeks on the water would take in many of the ports integral to world trade, mapping out in the voyage the outlines of today’s round-the-world, all-water service.
As the ship headed slowly toward the Miraflores Locks, the first of the three locks that would raise it 85 feet above sea level to Gatun Lake, we passed a new terminal being built across from the Panama Ports terminal on the former Rodman U.S. Navy Base. The PSA Panama International terminal, scheduled to open in May, will have two new ship-to-shore cranes capable of stretching 16 rows across.
The tugs peeled away as the ship moved up the channel, passing a raw strip of earth, where excavation is far along on the entrance channel that will lead to the massive new locks — 1,400 feet long, 110 feet wide with a 60-foot draft. For now, the 964-foot-long, 106-foot-wide APL Egypt is the largest size — hence the term Panamax — that can pass through the existing locks. And barely, at that, as we would soon see.
The ship moved slowly up the channel past the world’s most powerful dredge, the D’Artagnon, a Belgian-built vessel anchored off the mouth of the new channel, with its backhoe-like shovels clawing muck from the channel and pumping it ashore through a pipeline.
That brought the APL Egypt to one of the breathtaking sights of modern commerce: a queue of large container and bulk ships waiting like airline passengers in a security line for their turn to enter the twin Miraflores Locks, dedicated to handling northbound ships in the morning. The twin Gatun Locks on the Caribbean side are dedicated to southbound ships in the morning. The northbound and southbound ships pass each other around midday in the channel leading through Gatun Lake, where the locks on either end of the canal lead up to and down from.
After a half-hour wait in line, it was our turn. A pair of small but powerful tugs approached on either side of the APL Egypt’s bow to guide us into the locks and line up the trickiest part of the transit, a half-hour of preparation that led us inching into the first of the two Miraflores locks. Lines were quickly passed to the ship from four small electric locomotives, one on each side of the bow and one on each side of the stern.
Lesson No. 4: These locomotives, which move along rails on either side of the lock, hold the line taut to ensure the ship stays centered. The clearance between the side of the ship and the lock is supposed to be a meter, or about a yard, but from the bridge, it looks more like a foot on either side — a thin line of clearance for a 67,000-ton ship.
Inside the lock, the massive gates swing shut behind the stern and the water rises so gradually as to be imperceptible. Once the water level matches that of the water in the nest lock, the gates in front of the bow open, allowing the ship to move slowly into the second of the two locks leading to Lake Miraflores. And there, another queue of ships waits to enter the third, and last, set of locks, the single Pedro Miguel, which would lock the ship up to the level of Gatun Lake. There, the process was repeated.
But before reaching Gatun, ships first must transit the Culebra Cut, also known as the Gaillard Cut after the engineer who directed the cutting of a channel through the continental divide. The nine-mile cut, which took 60 million pounds of dynamite and years to blast through, is the narrowest part of the canal, at just 500 feet. Once through the cut, the APL Egypt entered Gatun Lake, and threaded its way along the channel around jungle-clad islands that were mountaintops before the Chagres River was dammed and left the peaks poking up from the water.
After passing southbound ships that had entered the canal from the Caribbean side that morning, the APL Egypt came to the Gatun Locks, a set of three locks that lowered the vessel to the level of the Caribbean. The intricate process of lining the ship up seemed to take longer on this side of the lake, perhaps because there were three locks in a row, instead of the three separate locks we had passed through in the morning. In the distance was the excavation work for the new locks that will be built parallel to the Gatun Locks.
The sun had crossed the sky, setting on the other side of the world from where we’d started. A pilot boat appeared, and our pilot departed for land, as we prepared to steam through the breakwater protecting the entrance to the canal out into the Caribbean. Outside the breakwater, another cluster of ships queued up to pass through the canal that night. In all, there were 44 ships on the Caribbean side and 47 on the Pacific side, all waiting to transit the canal that night, according to Velez, who tapped into the information through a Blackberry application.
The APL Egypt turned to starboard back toward the Manzanillo International Terminal, next to the huge Colon Free Trade Zone. We passed the MOL Universe — an unlikely name for a feeder ship of less than 1,000 TEUs — which was waiting to pick up the boxes the APL Egypt would offload for transshipment to Manaus, Brazil, on the banks of the Amazon River, more than 800 miles inland.
It was another two hours before a berth opened, allowing us to dock. Longshoremen were already positioning chassis to transport the 400 containers that would be offloaded for transshipment service, including the one to Manaus.
Lesson No. 5: Time has a different character along the Panama Canal. After clearing immigration, we were met by a van that took us back to Panama City, on a road running essentially parallel to the canal. The 50-mile trip took an hour by car, 10 hours by ship — and 10 days by breaststroke.
Contact Peter T. Leach at firstname.lastname@example.org.